Five days into fall camp, Michigan football’s new defense is taking shape.
It’s not the departed Don Brown’s defense — which several players starred in, boosting their draft stock, including Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers who excelled in a versatile viper role-playing pass rusher, safety, linebacker — but defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald’s defense still calls for the same level of versatility.
“Don Brown’s defense was a very unique defense in a lot of ways, so I think that Coach McDonald’s right now is very impressive,” said Andrew Stueber, a fifth-year offensive lineman for the Wolverines. “This defense is different than the defense we’ve had before.”
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MacDonald eliminated Brown’s hybrid Viper role in favor of a BUCK linebacker position, a hybrid linebacker and defensive end in his 3-4 base defense. His task is to revamp a Michigan defense that ranked 89th in the nation a year ago, allowing 434.3 yards per game. Only Illinois and Rutgers were worse in the Big Ten.
“It’s kind of refreshing hearing different calls. It makes a lot more game-like (because) you’re trying to game plan their new defense,” Stueber said. “They’re showing us a lot of different fronts, and a lot of different stunts and everything, but a lot of those stunts are ones that we’re going to see throughout the season.”
Michigan’s offensive unit has seen a lot of movement, disguises, adjustments, switches and on-the-fly adjustments in practice that have confused some of its most senior leadership. Spring ball installations on the defense include several fronts and coverages with the hope of wrecking offensive flow.
“I do see it as a positive change.” U-M receiver Ronnie Bell added. “As an offense, especially as a receiver, when you’re running around, trying to figure out who you’re blocking or who you’re running your route off of, it’s definitely a lot more complicated than it used to be.”
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Transitioning to a new defensive scheme hasn’t been too hard for the secondary unit, which has spent fall camp and team meetings reviewing the playbook. During practice, they embrace a “don’t be afraid to make mistake” mantra as they fine-tune some tweaks less than a month before they open their season at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 4.
“I don’t think it is complicated at all. It’s just moving parts, different things. It’s not rocket science or anything like that. (Macdonald) teaches it very, very well,” said defensive back Brad Hawkins. “If you get in your playbook, you study, it’s going to come. That’s the route that we’re all taking on. Just studying amongst each other, putting in the extra work, and just going out there and executing to the best of our ability.”
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The Wolverine’s offensive line will feature veteran leadership in Stueber and Ryan Hayes, but several freshmen, including Zak Zinter, Trevor Keegan and Karsen Barnhart, are contending for starting spots Competing against a revolving defensive unit has heightened the learning curve for the young line and, in turn, prepared them for future looks across the line of scrimmage this season.
“So being able to learn what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it to such a different defense is really impressive,” Stueber said. “I think that’s going to help us go into the season, being able to game plan quicker and recognize the fronts to putting sand because we’ve experienced them already in fall camp.”
Mia Berry is a sports reporting intern with the Free Press. Reach out via email: email@example.com.